Gainsbourg, at 8550 Greenwood Ave. N., is a storefront in a block of storefronts (nail salon, Indian takeout, computer repair, Hispanic bodega, craft brewery, etc.). But its windows have lace curtains, the sidewalk sports a few tables for fair-weather seating, and the welcome inside the dimly lit bar is warm and genuine.
The first thing to do at Gainsbourg is to check out the drinks menu, which leads off with half a dozen absinthes. Were you hoping for something simpler? You could do what the street characters do in Paris: check your pockets for loose change and just order “un coup de rouge.” That's French for “a shot of your vin ordinare.” There's also a score of house cocktails with bizarre names and unfamiliar ingredients like wormwood bitters that turn out to be relevant to Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer. The Lamorisse, for example, refers to the creator of the short film “The Red Balloon.” The Jacques Dutronc pays homage to a French singer who succeeded Serge in the public's imagination. Even so, as far as I'm concerned, enough already. Too many mixologists, not enough barkeeps. Good thing there's no expiration date on that bottle of Génépy des Alpes.
The Happy Hour menu features a $6 item called (what else?) the Gainsbourger, a substantial patty on an undersized potato bun, invigorated with some onion confit; we spent an extra buck to have the kitchen add a generous portion of fourme d'Ambert (French bleu cheese). The spicy house ketchup is enlivened with herbs. Could have added fries, too. Once you get past happy hour, there are steaks, a duck confit, mac and cheese. Omelets and French toast on the brunch menu. Croque-Monsieur and poutine, too.
The lounge singer Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was never as celebrated or notorious in the US as, say, Dean Martin (another sleepy-eyed crooner), but was far more accomplished. Singer, songwriter, painter, poet, writer, actor, director: he bridged the worlds of rock, reggae, and pop music. And, famously, he was partnered for over a decade with the London socialite and actress Jane Birkin. Before they met, he had recorded a duet with Brigitte Bardot (“Je t'Aime...Moi non plus”) that so scandalously simulated real sex that it was withdrawn for two decades; he recorded it again with Birkin, and it became his signature. Then, in 2008, Seattle Weekly music writer Hannah Levin and her husband JJ Wandler took over a defunct Moroccan spot on Greenwood and transformed it into a virtual shrine for Serge. It even survived a kitchen fire, in December, 2011. There are now half a dozen similarly cozy taverns within crawling distance, but Gainsbourg's charm survives.
A word in praise of this neighborhood, which has seen much suffering and sorrow since a natural gas explosion destroyed three buildings within a a block of Gainsbourg last year. Notably the Lodge, 8501 Greenwood Ave. N., which Shawn Roters pulled out of the fire of bankruptcy. Now it's one of seven restaurants in his mini-chain, and offers four dozen beers on tap. And across the street Eric Donnelly has opened FlintCreek Cattle Co., 8421 Greenwood Ave. N. This paean to meat is everything the little neighborhood taverns are not: it's airy, sleek, and expensive (braised short rib, $29; Alaska king salmon, $29, 12-ounce ribeye, $42). On the other hand, the wine list prices seem remarkably moderate: Felsina Chianti Classico, $55; even Jean-Louis Chave's Offerus from the northern Rhone is a reasonable $88.
Still going strong: neighborhood favorites like the hockey-themed Angry Beaver, 8412 Greenwood Ave. N., the school-themed Teacher's Lounge, 8505 Greenwood Ave. N., and the woodsy Cozy Nut Tavern, 123 N. 85th Ave. Alas, Neptune Coffee, whose building was leveled by the blast, won't be returning.
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A few quick updates: Ba Bar is coming to University Village, 2685 NE 46th St., where Liam's Bistro briefly flourished. The first installment, the mother ship, landed on 12th Avenue, the product of a collaboration between Eric Banh and his sister Sophie. The siblings had fled Vietnam in 1978, first to Canada, then to Seattle. Baguette Box (sandwiches), then Monsoon (upscale Asian) followed by the original Ba Bar on Capitol Hill. The sandwich shops were sold, a second Monsoon followed, then a second Ba Bar in South Lake Union. The question facing the Banhs has always been whether the market will support premium pricing for what is, essentially, Vietnamese street food; the answer, so far, has been a resounding yes.
Second piece of news for U Village: another outpost of Rachel's Ginger Beer. Rachel Marshall, who launched this concept in the Pike Place Market, is almost certain to bring along her pal Monica Dimas's fried chicken sandwiches.
Meanwhile, over in Ballard, there's a new brewery in the old Hilliard's space at 1550 49th St NW . You'll recall that Hilliard's was bought out by Olympia-based Odin last summer. The new tenant is (what else) another “craft” brewery, this time Petaluma-based Lagunitas. And before you get all confused: Lagunitas itself is now 50 percent owned by Heinecken. Crafty, eh?
Ronald Holden is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing. His new guide to local food and drink, “Forking Seattle,” is available from Amazon.